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23 Dec 16:53

Bring on the Dancing Bears!

by Jennifer Kennard
Hello again from Letterologyland! I happily return after many long months of hibernation. My sincere apology for not surfacing much earlier after abandoning my post rather suddenly last August. I'd like to say I was working on a fine print edition of Letterology musings, but this was not entirely the case. For the past year, I've been struggling with severe episodes of vertigo related to an ear disorder. At worst, the unpredictable episodes have been frequent and debilitating, with no relief but to sleep it off for a day or more. Lately, they are just as frequent, but less severe, and I'm slowly learning how to anticipate them. When I feel dizzy, I mostly just lie low and agonize until my balance returns. When I'm good, I feel like dancing! 
     I am very grateful to all the loyal Letterology readers who sent me their kind notes and queries while I was away, and I'm happy to have the support of good friends and family. It has been quite a humbling experience on many levels, and I savor all the good days, yet regret the continual loss of time. It is now all about finding balance, and that dang, yin-yang symmetry of life. As I struggle to keep balance in my equilibrium, I also struggle to find balance in my work, sleep and play time. I wonder if I will ever get caught up entirely, but as someone wiser than I once said, "there is never enough time unless you're serving it." Life goes on with or without us, and it is all I can do to keep the balance and dance.
     Enough about me however...I am eager to share so many exciting new and old things I have discovered recently, so please watch this space. The first feature I'd like to share now is of a lovely 19th C hand lettered ABC album I stumbled upon at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair in October. It was displayed at the booth of White Fox Rare Books of Vermont, and owner Peter Blackman was kind enough to show it to me just at closing time. This unusual book is presumed to be created by a Maryette Shepard Bennet of Des Moines, Iowa around 1884, and contains her handiwork of dried seaweed letters, a popular pastime in her day. Her large, roughly six inch tall pressed seaweed letters nicely mimic the bifurcated wood type of posters and signage of this era, however her attention span dwindled some before completing it. Near the end, she chose to watercolor U, V and X, and then rendered Y & Z only in pencil. Over the years, I have seen many fine examples of dried seaweed images—often referred to as "nature printing"—but I have never seen such a charming book of mostly seaweed letters. For more information and sale price, contact Peter Blackman here

18 Jul 11:52

SuperMemo + Anki

by mark

In high school, I tried to learn Spanish, and failed. In college, I tried again, and failed again. Then, in my thirties, I discovered SuperMemo, and within a year I had memorized thousands of Spanish words and phrases and was finally on my way to speaking Spanish.

SuperMemo is software premised on the idea that there is an ideal time to practice any item you are trying to remember. You want to practice when you have almost forgotten it. Too soon, and you waste your time, and even interfere with long term memory formation. Too late, and you’ve lost the trace, and have struggle to learn it again. There is a simple equation that describes the shape of the forgetting curve, but the exact curve is different for every item and for every person. There is no single “best pace” for memorizing all things.

However, your ideal time to practice can be predicted from your history of attempted recall. The inventor and memory expert Piotr Wozniak reduced this practice to software many years ago, and his technique, called “spaced repetition,” is now available in quite a few learning products, including Wozniak’s own SuperMemo, and an open source version called Anki. None of them are perfect from a usability point of view. But any of them will work far, far better than random study of flashcards. These tools will not give you all the pieces of the learning puzzle, obviously. Memorization is only one step. But it is a crucial, difficult, first step, and it is wonderful to get a boost.

I recommend SuperMemo or Anki to every student who needs to memorize: vocabulary, science and medical terms, names and faces, musical chords, technical specs — anything that can be reduced to a flash card.

SuperMemo for Windows (its main version) has a famously slow-to-evolve interface that will irritate anybody used to the convenience of modern UX, but it contains many wonderful features, including “incremental reading,” which is a way to save and remember passages from books and articles. Anki is quite primitive in terms of features, but has an up-to-date interface and is available on most platforms, including an iOS and free Android app.


-- Gary Wolf

SuperMemo (Windows)

Free, donations welcome

SuperMemo iPhone app
Free, with in-app purchases for language courses

02 May 18:01

Dark Sky

by mark

As a co-worker and I were leaving a cafe, we looked and saw it was threatening to rain. “Should we walk?” I asked. He smiled and showed me this app: Dark Sky.

Dark Sky is a weather app that focuses on letting you know how long until it starts raining or snowing where you are, based on your exact GPS coordinates. Or, if it is already raining, it tells you how long it will rain and how hard. Very handy if you are about to run out, but could also give it a few more minutes to let the weather move past.

Of course, it gives you all of the other relevant weather info as well in a very understandable way: current temperature, the hourly forecast for the day, and the weekly forecast.

What makes this my go to weather app is that it anticipates my needs: the first screen tells me what is the weather near me right now and gives me all the details I need to react right away, the next screen is what the rest of the day will be like, and the next screen is what the rest of the week is like. All done in a clean and easy to understand way.

You could say what I like about this is what it doesn’t include:

- You don’t enter in location, because by default it tells me the weather where I am. (You can search for other locations or indulge your sense of schadenfreude and be shown info for interesting storms!)

- The interface is mostly grey scale and simple icons, so it is easy to read.

- Also, the app isn’t free, so that means there aren’t ads.

It’s a small thing, but as I travel, I’ve also liked how it tells me the address it thinks I am near. Convenient when you call for a cab.

These are the same people who do – while you get most of the same information with the same simple design, you don’t get the precipitation information. If you use an iPhone, they made their site into a web app: visit the site on your phone, and follow the instructions on the bottom banner. It’s sort of like getting a “lite” version of Dark Sky.

-- Mark Krawczuk

Dark Sky for iOS

18 Sep 20:55

Fort Magic

by mark

My 10-year-old daughter and her friends love playing with the Fort Magic kit. It’s a box of PVC pipes and connecters, along with clips to attach sheets or tarps. You can build all sorts of things with them, from dangerous blow guns (we use cotton balls and tape with a big needle) to clubhouses. See Fort Magic’s YouTube channel for other projects. We’ve had Fort Magic for a over a year and Jane has not yet become bored with it.

Here’s a video of Jane and her cousins showing me one of their creations.

Fort Magic

Available from Amazon